Alina Bloomgarden started Music on the Inside, a nonprofit that connects jazz artists with incarcerated people (or those recently released from prisons and jails) for lessons, concerts and mentoring. Her inspiration for founding the program seven years ago was Louis Armstrong, who was arrested as a boy and sent to reform school, where he learned to play the horn.
“That changed his life,” she said. “I thought, what are we doing for young people and adults going through the criminal justice system now?” Ms. Bloomgarden, who was a founding producer of Jazz at Lincoln Center, brought on Wynton Marsalis, a former colleague and friend, as an artistic adviser for her initiative.
Since then, teaching artists like Antoinette Montague and Arturo O’Farrill have shared their skills and experiences in jails and prisons throughout New York, including Rikers. With the pandemic, Music on the Inside shifted online, and more than 200 artists signed up to volunteer. One Sunday a month, a Zoom concert brings students and professionals together; the next show, Musicians for Justice, is Jan. 16.
Ms. Bloomgarden, 77, lives on the Upper West Side.
CAFFEINE-FREE When I wake up on Sunday mornings, maybe about 8:30, the first thing I do is have half an apple and some walnuts. I stopped drinking coffee because I once went to the Dalai Lama’s doctor and he told me not to. The first year I stopped was hard. I would go to Lincoln Center and have one cup, and that one cup I really needed. Now it’s apples and walnuts.
ON CALL Sunday mornings are about catching up with whatever work I need to do, all the stuff you’d normally think of when you think of nonprofit work: fund-raising, grant-writing. If there’s a concert that night, we’ll have a soundcheck at 1 p.m. Richard Miller, one of our great guitar teachers, manages that, but I’m on call for anything that needs to be done, so I don’t leave the apartment. The Jazz Foundation of America has been tremendously important in helping us identify teaching artists like Richard. Every time he had a gig before Covid, he would stand up and tell people he needs guitars for our program, and people would donate them. We’ve also gotten keyboards donated. They go right to the correctional facilities or the individuals we work with.
PARK POD In the afternoon, I go for a walk around Riverside Park with my friend Roni Alpert and her dog, Flo. Flo is very attached to me. Roni and I actually met in Riverside Park. David Ostwald’s Band would play there, at the Warsaw Memorial, every day when the weather was nice during Covid. We became a pod with a few other friends. I might see a friend from the synagogue. I’m a renewed Jew. I spent 30 years studying Buddhism, then I came back to Judaism, to Romemu, a progressive organization on the Upper West Side. We might talk about what we’re learning with the rabbi, David Ingber.
DANCE CARD: FULL Another thing I might do is try to find a dance to go to. I’ve always been a dancer; I was a dance major in college. Right now I’m into ballroom and swing. Swing 46 sometimes has a dance, or Tavern on the Green. A lot of people ask me to dance. If you’ve been around the dance scene for a while, people really enjoy dancing with you. Barry Harris, who just died, was really the one who inspired me about jazz. I was first introduced to him through my friend Travis Peace, who used to go to Barry Harris’s Jazz Cultural Theater to study sax with him. There was something about that environment that was really transformative.
SUPPER CLUB OR SPAGHETTI If we have a concert, it’s from 6 to 7. I’ll be home for the Zoom. After that, I might go to Dizzy’s Club for dinner and more jazz. I’ll relax there. If not, I’ll cook at home. Before Covid, I never ate things like pasta. For some reason, I got into cooking pasta during Covid. Sometimes I’ll try a different recipe. One thing I tried to make recently was chicken tetrazzini. It wasn’t as good as what I remembered when I first had it at college.
FITFUL BUT GRATEFUL I go to bed at 11 or 12. One of the last things I do is munch on those peanut butter pretzel things from Trader Joe’s. Then I wake up in the night a lot because I’ll get ideas for the program. I’m so moved by the commitment of the musicians, how they want to continue their music and help these populations. So many of our top musicians — Catherine Russell, Don Braden — have contributed their music and their heart and want to do more.
Sunday Routine readers can learn more about Alina Bloomgarden’s work on Instagram @musicontheinsideinc or on Twitter at @MOTIinc.